Reviewed by Elvis Alves
Figuring in the Figure
by Ben Berman
Able Muse Press
ISBN-13: 978-1927409718, March 20, 2017
Ben Berman’s Figuring in the Figure offers a window into his personal life. In reading the poems, we learn that Berman is a young father and that he is a wizard at word play, among other things. The poems are written in the terza rima form, a rhyme scheme of Italian origins and used by Dante Alighieri. This form allows Berman to showcase is proficiency as a poet.
The first poem in the collection that caught my attention is titled “The Underside”. In it, two friends are at a park when one tells the other that his wife is cheating, that she is uploading unsavory pictures of herself on the internet under a false name, Lady Falcon. The husband accidentally finds this out when “he used her phone to order pizza.” The friend who is supposed to be listening, we assume to offer support to the distraught husband, is more interested in his inattentiveness, “…how my mind spirals and spurts like a squirrel getting chased up a tree, then scrambles to piece together the excerpts….” Prior to this realization, we are told “in front of us a hawk is perched on a branch, calmly pecking at a squirrel’s entrails.” Here, we are to associate the wife’s fictitious name, Lady Falcon, with the hawk (even though they are different types of bird) and the squirrel with the brain that is running wild.
The above poem underscores the fact that terza rima is not a perfect form (what form really is?) and that its true significance lies in the poet’s use of it to make the reader think and see connections between words. One can say the form informs the zeitgeist of Berman’s poetry so that the entirety of a poem, or a specific line of it, has the potential of playing with the reader’s mind. Specific examples of this are, “…the very word, bolt, meaning both to lock down and break loose” (“The Great Molasses Flood”, 26) and “A dead form is like a carcass that makes the richest of stocks” (Re Form 34). The first poem imagines a Pompeii-like eruption of molasses on the streets of Boston due to unsecured tubs of the substance. The second reads like a rebuttal to those who argue against Berman’s employment of the form of terza rima. Both inhabit words that give a sense of richness of imagery to what is discussed.
“Figures” (14), the title poem, and “Transformation” (37), both long poems broken into parts, serve as the heart of the collection. I like that Berman connects certain words and images in these and other poems in straightforward and nuanced ways. Here is “Ground” from the set of poems in Figures.
The figure and ground grow reversible
when you walk down the street with a child.
How quickly the formerly invisible
path transforms into a wonderland of chewed
gum and strewn leaves, while that house where a meal
awaits begins to look like a passing cloud.
Reversible/invisible rhymes, chewed/cloud does not, but the house is shaped like a cloud and therefore a figure comes to mind. Reversible/invisible also tells us that this is a terza rima poem. The play on word and form (figure) is mentally exciting here.
The poems in the third and final section are dedicated to fatherhood. This happening is foreshadowed in some of the poems in the other two sections. Here is a taste of the nature of the poems in this section.
I look over at my wife and some inner
voice begins to kick in, reminds me, Forget
what’s in you and focus on what’s in her (We Practice Changing, 51).
The “change” in the title refers to the change that is occurring in the wife’s body and in the father regarding perspective. He is learning selflessness, among other lessons. I enjoyed the poems in this section but some were too overly sentimental for me. However, the overall strength of the collection does more than compensate for this. I recommend that you read this book. It will make you think.